Hey! Nietzsche! Leave Them Kids Alone!
An excerpt from 'Hey! Nietzsche! Leave Them Kids Alone!' (2009)
Writing about emotions is hard – it demands a level of self-absorption that even the most well-balanced individual would find it difficult to maintain. And of course, it’s never the well-balanced individual who decides to pick up a guitar and pour the contents of his diary into a microphone – only a real lunatic would do that. So what’s the alternative? Well, you could write about social life or politics or the state of your neighbourhood. But what if you don’t care about any of that stuff? Is it possible to write a song that’s just… a song? A song that sounds great without really being about anything?
In 1983, Robert Smith proved you could; and in 1997, Weezer singer Rivers Cuomo – similarly exhausted by the effort of emotional music – decided to give it a go. He’d always written songs about himself, now he decided to see if he couldn’t write a song about something that had never happened to him. Cuomo assembled a set of tried-and-true mythological images and set about describing them with words and music. He wrote a song about catching his sweetheart ‘out in the eve, deep in the shady glen’ in the arms of another man. The results surprised him. He’d always assumed great songs came directly from strong feelings triggered by personal experiences. But even though he’d never been in or near a shady glen, and the things in the song were entirely made up, the song still sounded great.
To have discovered a method of songwriting by which he revealed nothing of himself was a huge relief for Cuomo. Not long before this, Weezer had released its second album, Pinkerton, in which Cuomo laid his heart completely bare. He’d spared nothing of himself—all his insecurities, his childhood anxieties, his sexual fantasies and his darkest thoughts went down on the tape. It was an extraordinarily brave thing to do, and it earned him, for his trouble, a pile of scathing reviews and a place in Rolling Stone’s list of the Worst Albums of 1996.
These days, Pinkerton is rightly seen as a classic—many believe it’s Weezer’s finest hour. But it’s not impossible, listening to it today, to hear the reasons why it was so badly received in its day. Pinkerton is, in a word, embarrassing. It’s embarrassing in the way that an unnecessarily maudlin twenty-first birthday speech can be, embarrassing in a reading-your-old-high-school-diary kind of way. It’s the kind of embarrassment we feel for someone when they’re over-sharing.
Cuomo himself was not blind to this possibility. He’d first begun to experiment with this type of confessional songwriting in 1992, inspired by the example of New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander. In February of that year, he’d set about recording a cover of one of Alexander’s songs ‘The World We Love so Much’. He didn’t want the guys in his band to hear it—he didn’t want anyone to hear it. He didn’t even hit record until he’d covered the walls of the room he was subletting with acoustic foam—not to enhance the sound quality, but to make absolutely sure no one could hear him while he was ‘emoting’.
But the events of the following year made Cuomo bolder. The success of Weezer’s insanely catchy—but surprisingly personal—debut album had given him reason to believe that there might be some level of interest out there in his emotions. So he decided to give them more emotions. Lots more. As a songwriter, he went into confessional mode—and he had plenty to confess.
Cuomo was deeply uncomfortable with his newfound rock-star status. ‘He hated himself for achieving it’, said music journalist Andy Greenwald, ‘and he hated himself for loving it’. Stardom only increased his isolation and magnified the problems in his life, problems which went right back to his childhood. Rivers and his brother, Leaves, were raised on an ashram, an experience which left them totally unprepared for the brutal world of high school in America. The Cuomo brothers got the crap beaten out of them. But worse than that, they were outcasts, unable to connect with all the nice normal kids with their nice normal lives. No wonder, he thinks, he turned out weird. No wonder he can’t communicate with people, except in the highly controlled form of songs like the one he’s singing now. In ‘Across the Sea’ Cuomo dumps the blame for all of this squarely at his mother’s feet. Then, disgusted by his own self-pity, and the entire song itself up to this point, he exclaims, ‘goddamn, this business is really lame!’.
This was more or less the mainstream music press’s reaction to Pinkerton. Rolling Stone magazine, and the vast majority of the people who’d bought and loved the Blue Album, weren’t ready for this kind of thing at all. Where were all the catchy little pop songs? Why is he screaming like that? The record-buying public stayed away in droves, reviewers were unkind, and Cuomo went into retreat.
After we put out the first record, it seemed like a lot of the fans were really interested in me and were encouraging me to expose myself more, so that’s what I did on the second record, and everybody hated it. I was really embarrassed.
Pinkerton wasn’t a disaster—it was an acquired taste. Grown-up rock journals like Rolling Stone felt let down by Cuomo’s failure to deliver on the promise of a bubblegum rock revival, and dismissed the album as morbid and self-indulgent. But younger fans loved it for exactly the same reasons. At this point, a parallel universe was created. In the world we know, grunge rose and fell, and rock-rap begat nu-metal . Meanwhile, in the other dimension, Pinkerton, not Nevermind, was the greatest album of the ’90s, and emo began its crucial second phase.
While the cult of Pinkerton was getting underway, Cuomo had begun writing non-autobiographical songs like ‘Lover in the Snow’, and judging their success not on their emotional authenticity, but on their formal qualities. Like Robert Smith (and for similar reasons) he was moving decisively away from emo toward what can only be described as ‘formo’. Toward the end of the ’90s, he began a study of rock structure in the form of his ‘Encyclopedia of pop’, a ring binder full of hand-drawn charts in which Cuomo recorded the characteristics of hit songs by Green Day, Nirvana, Oasis and many other bands in an attempt to pinpoint the traits they share in common. This list has provided him with a set of models for songwriting, which he has been implementing ever since. The songs on the Green Album, he proudly told Rolling Stone’s Chris Mundy in 2001, contain ‘no feeling, no emotion’, just music. Cuomo was not being entirely honest—‘Hash Pipe’ and ‘Keep Fishin’’ are emotional enough. But he was making the point that he will happily sacrifice feeling for form. This new direction irritated Pinkerton fans as surely as Pinkerton itself had annoyed the critics. One fan, writing as whatawierdo on Songmeanings.com, said
I think Rivers has traded his personal touch of neurotic and clever songs for more standard, less emotional songs.
Diehard fans gritted their teeth and put up with the ‘horrible pop songs’, scouring the albums for the rare flashes of Cuomo’s old confessional mode that still showed up here and there. By the time of 2005’s Make Believe, those who’d been seduced by Pinkerton’s emotional authenticity had had enough of Cuomo’s songs about nothin’. Pitchfork’s reviewer wrote,
Pinkerton triumphed by being an uncomfortably honest self-portrait of Cuomo. On Make Believe, his personality has vanished beneath layers of self-imposed universality, writing non-specific power ballads like he apprenticed with Diane Warren, and whoah-oh-ohing a whole lot in lieu of coming up with coherent or interesting thoughts.
Cuomo would probably have taken the Diane Warren comparison as a compliment. The author of dozens of monster middle-of-the-road hits in the ’80s and ’90s, Warren’s CV includes Starship’s ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’ and Chicago’s ‘Look Away’, as well as co-writing credits with Bon Jovi and Cuomo’s beloved Cheap Trick. The ‘universality’ and ‘non-specificity’ the pitchfork reviewer complains about onMake Believe is the key to the success of Warren’s mega-hits. They’re songs that (in theory) always work for everyone, because their structure is tried and true. That’s why Diane Warren is a hit-maker. Hit-makers don’t sit around waiting for painful personal experiences to happen to them—they sit down at the word processor and write hits according to the rules of hit-writing.
By compiling his ‘Encyclopedia of pop’ Rivers Cuomo was learning these rules for himself. Pretty soon, he was rhyming ‘lady’ with ‘maybe’ and telling his girl that ‘you’re the air that I breathe’. He sang this stuff on stage in front of a huge glowing ‘W’ and played solos like he was in Van Halen. He left emo in the dust, and embraced its opposite—classic rock. He’d proved it was possible to write powerful music whose goal was something other than the sharing of feelings. But in the process, he’d demonstrated that the modern indie rock singer does so at his peril.
The Killers’ debut album Hot Fuss is full of lyrics about nothing. What is ‘Somebody Told Me’ about? Who cares? The important thing is that the chorus contains the words ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’. These are words that sound good in the choruses of new-wave rock songs, and Brandon Flowers has fifty years of pop history on his side as he yelps them out over the song’s skipping beat and buzzing synths. What about ‘All these things that I’ve done’? The glorious sing-along refrain, “I’ve got soul but I’m just a soldier”, works like a charm. But as comedian Bill Bailey has pointed out, Flowers might as well be singing “I’ve got ham but I’m not a hamster”. By the time it came to record the Killers’ second album, Flowers was feeling guilty about having got away with these powerful, but un-emotional lyrics. He made amends by getting his diary out and writing an album about his childhood.
Formalism in rock makes us uncomfortable. We’re just as suspicious of Rivers Cuomo reducing rock to a series of lists and graphs as we are with the idea of songs being made-to-order by Diane Warren, or with Brandon Flowers writing lyrics by choosing words that sound good over music. Robert Smith was faintly disgusted with himself after he wrote ‘Let’s Go To Bed’. The song did the trick, but Smith felt like he’d got away with something, not like he’d made a great work of art. That’s because in rock and roll, especially indie rock and roll, artists, critics and fans alike place an enormous premium on emotional authenticity. When an album is good, we say it’s ‘inspired’, ‘sincere’, ‘unflinchingly honest’ or ‘deeply personal’. If it misses the mark, it’s ‘formulaic’, ‘soulless’ or ‘unoriginal’.
The idea of art or music as a form of self-expression is virtually taken for granted today. It’s the artist’s ultimate authority – ‘I wrote it that way because that’s how I felt, says the artist’. And this is no less than we expect of the artist – authentic self-expression, in defiance of fashion, sensible advice or the dictates of the marketplace. We accept the idea that music might have other goals – social commentary, political protest, making you dance, getting the singer laid. But in every case, what we’re mostly interested in is the artist’s feeling for these things. Emo is just an extreme and uncompromising variation on a theme which is universally accepted. From the rarefied air of The Wire magazine, (where an almost unlistenable album will be lauded for the artist’s refusal to compromise his vision,) to the set of American Idol, (where week in, week out, the judges advise the contestants to ‘be yourself’) the mantra is the same. Authentic self expression = good art. What we look for in music is passion, because passion, we feel, makes good poetry.
This wasn’t always the case. In 18th century London, for example, nobody took much of an interest in poets’ feelings, or how sincerely they were expressed. Back then, nobody would have cared very much about Robert Smith’s depression, Gerard Way’s rage, Rivers Cuomo’s angst or Brandon Flowers’ diary. In fact, most of the artists whose lyric sheets we pore over today would have been chased out of the salon or the coffee house for having too many feelings, for devoting too many stanzas to their emotions while forgetting all about the things that really make for quality poetry—a sense of balance and symmetry, a sound grasp of metrical composition, and the advancement of a useful moral theme or accurate social observation. Not to understand these things was, in eighteenth-century literary circles, as disastrous for one’s literary career as to be seen about town in a poorly powdered wig.
In the pursuit of this ideal, the poet’s emotions could be of no particular use—in fact they were most likely to get in the way. What was needed to write great poetry was not passion, but careful study of the classics. Alexander Pope was a master in this regard—he studied Horace to the point where he could imitate his style perfectly. He became famous, and it became the ambition of all young poets to imitate Pope’s imitation.1 And this was not impossible, since Pope took care to set out the rules of poetry he’d derived (and refined) from Horace in his Essay on Criticism. He even made them rhyme. Here, a poet could learn, if not how to write a great poem, at least how to avoid writing a bad one. These rules were more discussed than actually followed. ‘No great writer’ literary historian Richard Barnard points out, ‘allowed himself to be imprisoned in neo-classical theory’.2 And yet the fact that this theory existed and was seriously discussed offers a glimpse of an artistic climate completely different to our own, one where order and stability were the qualities most admired in a work of art, and originality – far from being the poet’s goal – was something best avoided, since it meant you were more likely to screw things up.
The good thing about formalism is that it usually works, but often that’s about the nicest thing you can say about it. ‘The classic’, wrote Walter Pater in his ‘Essay on style’, ‘comes to us out of the cool quiet of other times: as the measure of what a long experience has shown us will at least never displease us’. In certain periods of history, Pater says, the classics assert themselves—and this is what happened in Europe in the eighteenth century. But eventually, there will be—there has to be—a reaction to this insistence on order and symmetry. A demand for the wild, the quaint, the passionate, and the unreasonable will make itself felt. The pendulum will swing back. Rules will be broken, books thrown aside.
The un-emotional, classical phase that Rivers Cuomo had entered with ‘Lover in the Snow’ began winding down during the recording of 2005’s Make Believe. But the real change came with the release of a compilation of his home demo recordings three years later. In collecting the material for this album, Cuomo went through tapes dating back to the very earliest days of Weezer in the early ’90s. He listened, mesmerised, to the Rivers of fifteen years ago emoting in his carefully soundproofed isolation on ‘The World We Love so Much’. He heard again the painful whimpering at the start of ‘Crazy One’, and the demo tapes of his wildly ambitious—and ultimately abandoned—space opera, ‘The Black Hole’. He began to speak approvingly of Pinkerton for the first time since its traumatic birth.1
When Weezer finally released their new album later that same year, it quickly became apparent that something had been fundamentally altered in the singer’s approach to his art. The Red Album’s opening song, ‘Troublemaker’, is a manifesto for this new direction, in which Cuomo finally throws out the ‘Encyclopedia of pop’, and asserts the value of originality and sincere personal expression. The singer insists that he is an original man with original thoughts. So instead of looking at books, he’s looking inside himself.
Who needs stupid books?
They are for petty crooks
I will learn by studying the lessons of my dreams
Dreams crop up again on the Red Album, on a song Cuomo describes as ‘a big symphonic art-type number’, ‘Dreamin’’. The tug of war between emo and formo in Rivers’ soul meant the song very nearly didn’t make it onto the album. He wrote it, and then somehow lost his nerve. He scrapped it, and started working on a reassuringly classic-sounding verse-chorus-verse type song that became ‘This is the Way’, which the band, and the record company loved immediately. But by the time Weezer started recording the album, Cuomo was feeling adventurous again. He argued passionately for ‘Dreamin’’ to be included and ‘This is the Way’ to be left on the shelf.
’Dreamin’’ is an ambitious ode to imagination and reverie, in which Cuomo expands on the idea contained in those lines from ‘Troublemaker’. All his life, the singer explains, people have been trying to tell him there are rules. You have to go to school, you have to get a job, you have to learn to be responsible. And all his life, the singer has known in some profound way that this is a crock. How does he know? He just knows. ‘Normal’ life—school, job, etc, terrifies him to his soul. But when he’s absorbed in his own imagination, he feels at home.
Dreamin’ in the morning
Dreamin’ all through the night
and when I’m dreamin’ I know that it’s all right
The song moves through several different movements that illustrate the dreamer’s different moods. At the beginning, when he’s just staring out the window, the backing has a dreamy ’50s’ teen-pop feel to it. When the singer starts asserting his right to do what he likes and stops doing his homework, the guitars crank up a notch and the music takes a more defiant stance. Then, in the middle section, the city and its suburbs, the school, the freeways, disappear entirely. Cuomo leaps through a slightly hilarious ‘Sound of Music’ soundscape, with choirs of angels echoing over the hills and taped birdsong twittering in the background. Here, the world of custom and convention seems far away—there are no teachers, no grown-ups, no cops and no record companies. As his voice rings out over the landscape, he starts to wonder if the natural world isn’t somehow connected with the source of his own creativity. He feels cramped and constrained by human society, with its rules and regulations. People are always telling him to ‘get with the program’. Out here, it quickly becomes obvious that there is no program, and the singer’s imagination finally has space to roam. He throws away his schoolbooks and his ‘Encyclopedia of pop’, and starts listening to the birds and the bees.
The swing away from Classicism in 18th century England began during Pope’s lifetime, as the classical poetry of the day was supplemented by a growing interest in popular ballads of the middle ages. The authors of these unruly old poems were mostly unknown, and the verses themselves had changed many times over the centuries, as different singers picked them up and adapted them to their purposes. They were rarely written down, mostly because they were considered too rough and bawdy to be proper literature - ballads were not for polite company, and they found no place in the 18th century salons. The ballad’s humble birth and lusty swagger landed it on the wrong side of the line dividing the Classical from its uncouth opposite, the Romantic. This made it the perfect vehicle for the poet who would knock the wig-wearers off their perch in the 19th century - a man who had no time for classicists or cafes. He announced his arrival in 1798 with a book of Ballads.
In William Wordsworth’s ‘Expostulation and Reply’, we find the poet by the side of the road, sitting on a rock, staring into space. A wandering classicist stops to lecture him: shouldn’t he be re-reading Horace or refining his couplets?
‘Why, William, on that old grey stone,
Thus for the length of half a day,
Why, William, sit you thus alone,
And dream your time away?’
‘Where are your books? that light bequeath’d
To beings else forlorn and blind!
Up! Up! and drink the spirit breath’d
From dead men to their kind.’
The man with the walking-stick wants Wordsworth to stop rambling about the countryside and get back to work. But what he doesn’t realise is that Wordsworth is at work—the forest is his office and the lake is his library. He doesn’t need the ‘spirit breath’d from dead men to their kind’, because he’s chosen to learn from the living. In the poem’s sequel, ‘The Tables Turned’, he puts forward his case:
Books! ’tis dull and endless strife,
Come, here the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music; on my life
There’s more of wisdom in it.
And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
And he is no mean preacher;
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.
These two poems first appeared in a book called the Lyrical Ballads, published as a joint venture with Wordsworth’s friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1798. This little book would change English poetry forever, and the after-effects of its discoveries would be felt all over the English-speaking world. But the poet’s original intentions were humble enough. The previous year, Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy had moved to Alfoxden, overlooking the Bristol Channel. Here, Dorothy had begun to keep a journal describing the sights and sounds of the countryside, and Wordsworth began some poems with the intention of doing the same thing in verse.
As he worked on these, it became increasingly clear to Wordsworth that the eighteenth-century’s rules for good poetry would be of no use to him whatsoever. Imitating Pope imitating Horace might help you make a big splash at the coffee house but out in the countryside, miles away from London and its whirlwind social life, different standards prevailed. It made no sense to describe the lives of tramps and cottage girls in the language of Pope and Dryden—who talks like that? Not the tramps and the little girls, that’s for sure. But classicism was equally useless for the task of describing Wordsworth’s impressions of nature, the ecstatic sense he had of a great spirit moving through all creation. How could he take a feeling like that and chop it up into pieces to make it fit some prefab idea of classical proportion?
So while all the other poets of the day were knocking themselves out trying to nail their poetic diction and get their heroic couplets down pat, Wordsworth was working just as hard to remove every trace of eighteenth-century classicism from his work. That’s why he spent all his time sitting on a rock and not at the library. All he would learn from books is how to write like poets who came before him, and Wordsworth had decided that their language, as good as it had been in its day, was of no use to him. He was determined, as he says in ‘The Tables Turned’, to learn from nature.
Wordsworth’s rejection of culture in favour of nature doesn’t seem that remarkable today. But in the century he was born into, it would have been considered deeply weird. In the 18th century, it was taken for granted that modern civilisation had improved and refined nature in every way. The spirit of the age was extraordinarily optimistic. On the 3 July 1750 Louis XVI’s minister Jacques Turgot had told his audience at the Sorbonne that the world was getting better, and that if things seemed less than perfect now, it was simply because human civilisation had some growing up to do.
… the whole human species, looked at from its origins, appears to the philosopher as an immense whole, which, like an individual, has its infancy and its progress … The totality of humanity, fluctuating between calm and agitation, between good times and bad, moves steadily though slowly towards a greater perfection.1
Turgot’s theme was a popular one during the eighteenth century, a period of time referred to by historians as The Age of Reason or the Enlightenment. The era was dominated by an enthusiasm for the discoveries of science and a belief that the power of rational thought would transform every area of human life. The thinkers of the Enlightenment didn’t claim to know everything. But they maintained, by and large, that everything could be known. Whatever problems mankind faced now, they reasoned, would be solved in the future by fearless rational investigation. At least, that was the idea.
In 1749, philosopher and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a native of the city of Geneva, read a notice in the Mercure de France, announcing an essay-writing competition on the topic: ‘Has the restoration of the arts and sciences had a purifying effect on morals’. Rousseau pondered this, and soon found that his head was swimming with a thousand ideas. He felt faint. When he’d collected himself, he sat down and wrote twelve thousand words to the effect that, No, the restoration of the arts and sciences had not had a purifying effect on morals. Progress, Rousseau argued, was not improving society—it was making things worse.
Rousseau began his essay by pointing out that if the arts and sciences were improving morals, then France, which was supposed to have the best art and the cleverest scientists in the world at that point, ought to be the most moral place on the face of the earth. This, Rousseau insisted, despite appearances, was not the case,
There prevails in modern manners a servile and deceptive conformity … politeness requires this thing; decorum that; ceremony has its forms, and fashion its laws, and these we must always follow, never the promptings of our own nature.
In the pages that followed, Rousseau offered a scathing critique of his supposedly ‘improving’ century. Where others saw the peak of civilisation and refinement, Rousseau saw only phoney manners held up to disguise a disturbing lack of real human feeling. But Rousseau also hinted, as in the passage above, at a ‘true’ human nature which had somehow been left behind or forgotten. He took up this theme in his next crack at the Dijon Academy’s essay-writing prize; this time the given topic was ‘What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorised by natural law?’. In this, his Second Discourse, Rousseau sized up the eighteenth-century man and tried to figure out what, in all his behaviour, is most ‘natural’. This, he admitted, was tricky. Human beings had by this point been so altered by the societies they had evolved, that they barely resembled their ancestors. But Rousseau believed that he had discovered, lurking beneath the surface of these modern people, two ‘natural’ inclinations. These were not arrived at by reason, like our tacked-on modern philosophies, but came as standard with the human soul, part of our original design. One is an interest in our own welfare, the other is the feeling of repugnance at the sight of another’s suffering.
But on top of this original design, Rousseau says, we have acquired a caked-on crust of false standards, all of which have their basis in our need to acquire privilege and distinction. This is in turn a result of the fact that human beings have, over the centuries, been coming together in greater numbers and living in closer proximity to one another. Now, instead of living naturally, the social man lives ‘for others’. This is the case, not only for those on the lower rungs of society—who have to make their way in the world under systems designed for the benefit of the rich and powerful—but also for the privileged few, who judge their worth purely in terms of the power they command over others. From this artificial way of life has come all our law, and the hierarchies of our society. None of it, Rousseau concludes, has any basis in natural law.
Here was a resounding ‘no’ to the essay question posed—and something more. The Second Discourse contains Rousseau’s most convincing, and most dangerous idea: that the furniture of eighteenth-century life—royalty, serfdom and myriad class distinctions in between—were not fixed, but moveable. Rousseau died in 1778. Eleven years later, the furniture of France would be thrown out the window.
The French Revolution
In his intoxicating account of the French Revolution, historian Thomas Carlyle conjures a vivid picture of the forging of France’s new constitution, ‘amid glitter of illuminated streets and Champs-Elysees, and crackle of fireworks and glad deray’. Carlyle describes,
Twelve Hundred human individuals, with the Gospel of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in their pocket, congregating in the name of Twenty-five Millions, with full assurance of faith, to ‘make the Constitution’: such sight, the acme and main product of the Eighteenth Century, our World can witness once only. For Time is rich in wonders, in monstrosities most rich; and is observed never to repeat himself, or any of his Gospels:—surely least of all, this Gospel according to Jean-Jacques.
All sorts of factors were at work in the years leading up to 1789, and in any accurate account of the revolution’s causes, Rousseau’s books would have to get in line behind such heavyweights as France’s escalating financial crisis, the simmering resentment of the peasantry, the war of independence in America, and a series of mini-revolutions in other parts of Europe. But there can be no doubt that Rousseau’s name was associated with the Revolution from the moment it took place. Whether the actions of the revolutionaries themselves were inspired by his (very popular) books is almost beside the point. The revolution seemed to put his ideas into practice—right from the start, hereditary privilege and serfdom were abolished, freedom and equality were the slogans. The new constitution’s first clause, ‘Men are born, and always continue, free and equal in respect of their rights’,echoed Rousseau’s famous statement in The Social Contract, ‘Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains’.
The Revolution, as Victorian critic Matthew Arnold has observed, ‘seemed to ask of a thing, “is it rational?”’.3 In other words it was heralded as the culmination of all the hopes of the Enlightenment. For over a hundred years, philosophers and other thinkers had been talking about a society built on rational principles—now, it seemed, this society was being born. It’s impossible to overestimate the optimism with which this was greeted among freedom-loving artists and intellectuals.
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven…
wrote Wordsworth, thinking back on the Revolution’s early days, when anything seemed possible. The poet was in Paris for the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. He saw, at first hand, the ‘fireworks and glad deray’ Carlyle described. Then, two years later, in the winter of 1791, he was back. This time, he fell in love—twice—once with a girl named Annette Vallon, and once with the Republican cause. His political enthusiasm, as his biographer Roger Sharrock points out, was mingled in his mind with the natural beauty of the landscape he’d seen on his first visit. For Wordsworth the grandeur of nature seemed to point toward the dignity of man in his natural state. The essential rightness of democracy was indicated by the very ground he was standing on and the sky above his head.
All of this was brought to a premature halt when Wordsworth’s money ran out in 1792, and he was forced to return to England. There, he soon found that his deeply felt republican sympathies had made him a traitor to his own country, as the Pitt government declared war on France in February of the following year. Wordsworth cheered when he heard that English troops had been massacred by the French—and hated himself for it.
There were further shocks in store for the lover of freedom and democracy. By this time, France’s monarchy had been abolished, and the king himself had been executed. Democracy it seemed was within sight. But the newly-reborn nation was in a state of chaos, at war with almost every country in Europe while simultaneously being torn apart by civil strife, hunger and confusion. ‘There was no room’, as Rupert Christiansen puts it in his book Romantic Affinities, ‘for the democracy that allows dissent’.5 France’s future was effectively placed in the hands of Maximilien de Robespierre, the most influential member of The Committee of Public Safety, and a staunch follower of the gospel according to Jean-Jacques. Robespierre had learned from Rousseau’s The Social Contract that power came not from kings or governments, but from the will of the people. This, as philosopher and historian Bertrand Russell points out, is a much-misunderstood idea in Rousseau. In practice, it tends to mean that power-hungry individuals, or those with an axe to grind, can claim—by some mystic association—to ‘represent’ this will of the people, without having to go through all the fuss and bother of ballots and elections.
Robespierre was certainly one of these. The people, he maintained, were virtuous, but their virtuous new republic was under threat from aristocrats and royalists—leftovers from the bad old days. Robespierre prescribed a Reign of Terror—a necessary stage in which these counter-revolutionaries—and anyone else who stood in the way of freedom—would be rounded up and disposed of so that France could get on with the business of creating a new society. Robespierre’s courts and police were, as Carlyle observed, kept very busy. The guillotines worked overtime, and seventeen thousand enemies of freedom were executed in the space of fourteen months.
Persecution and mass-killings were nothing new in Europe—but this was something else. Crusades, witch-hunts, pogroms and inquisitions had always been carried out in the name of religion, or authorised by despotic kings; here was slaughter carried out in the name of natural virtue, the will of the people made manifest. Rousseau had always seemed to say (though this is not exactly what he meant) that if you made people free, they would be good and just. But this, it now seemed, was untrue. For many, the brightest hopes of the Enlightenment, the dream of freedom, equality and brotherhood, died sometime in 1793.
William Wordsworth, for one, was deeply confused. For him, as for all those who ‘had fed their childhood upon dreams’, the Revolution had promised nothing less than heaven on earth;
in which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
of custom, law and statute took at once
the attraction of a country in Romance;
when reason seemed the most to assert her rights…
Now his faith in this vision was being sorely tested. For a while he clung to the idea that the Terror was simply a necessary means to an end, that true freedom and democracy could only be achieved after a difficult—but necessary clampdown on freedom and democracy. When he realised how untenable this position was, he turned to the political philosophy of William Godwin, who advocated Universal Reason as mankind’s brightest hope. In his much-read and discussed ‘Enquiry Concerning Political Justice’, Godwin argued that reason should be given priority over all other considerations in life, including law, social convention and family ties. What this meant in practise was, as Godwin illustrated in a famous example, that if you could save only your mother or the world’s greatest philosopher from a burning building, you really ought to save the philosopher – reason says he will be of more use to the human race in the long run. Despite his initial enthusiasm, Wordsworth soon found he was incapable of being a good Godwinian. He just couldn’t quite let go of his emotions – though it wasn’t for lack of trying.
Thus strangely did I war against myself;
A bigot to a new idolatry
Did like a monk who hath forsworn the world
Zealously labour to cut off my heart
From all the sources of her former strength;
In his autobiographical poem, The Prelude, Wordsworth explains that the story of his life up to this point had been—like that of the century he was born into—a story about things getting better.
This history, my friend, hath chiefly told
Of intellectual power, from stage to stage
Advancing, hand in hand with love and joy,
And of imagination teaching truth
But that the Revolution and the Terror had knocked him badly off course. He’d found his youthful idealism diverted toward a cause that made him an apologist for murder. Then, searching for an alternative, he’d embraced a philosophy that required of him that he cut out his heart. This he knew he could not do. Irrational though it might be, the young poet had a feeling his heart would come in useful later on – and he was right.
The Story is in the soil
Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground is plainly too long for the name of an album—but Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst will always happily sacrifice tidy form to the expression of powerful feelings. In the album’s first song, ‘The Big Picture’, we find the singer riding in the back of the tour van while the driver and the guy in the passenger seat argue jokingly about where this place they’re looking for is supposed to be. It seems they’re lost. Something about this conversation gives the singer an idea. He pulls out his guitar and starts picking out some chords, letting the words come as the music builds up a head of steam. It doesn’t rhyme properly in places, and some of the words are crammed a little awkwardly into the metre—but the feeling is real, and it’s the feeling, not some pre-conceived idea of ‘good songwriting’ that Oberst follows in bringing this tune to completion. ‘The Big Picture’ goes on for another six and a half minutes—bringing the whole to a total of eight minutes and forty-seven seconds. Too long, you might say, for a melancholy dirge banged out in the back of the tour bus. But to Oberst in 2004 criticism of this kind meant nothing. ‘There’s a point where they feel complete, and that’s where I stop’, he said of his songs, ‘Maybe for some listeners they felt complete four minutes ago—they can fade it out’.1
Oberst is a student of nature, so he’s not interested in rules or traditions. He might sound philosophical in 2005’s ‘I Believe in Symmetry’, but really he’s expressing a wish to be rid once and for all of philosophy—and all the other stuff they teach you at school. Has any of it, Oberst asks himself, made me happier?
An argument for consciousness
The instinct of the blind insect
Who makes love to a flower bed
And dies in the first freeze
‘I want to know such simple things’, says the singer, ‘no politics no history’.2 But ridding yourself of five centuries of tradition is not as easy as all that – politics is everywhere, and history keeps screaming in his ear. In ‘Road to Joy’, recorded the same year, Oberst decides to scream back. The song is a portrait of a young man with a sensitive heart and a head full of noise trying to get his thoughts down before it’s too late,
So now I’m drinking, breathing, writing, singing.
Every day I’m on the clock.
My mind races with all my longings.
But I can’t keep up with what I got.
What he’s got is a feeling, not just for himself, but for the whole country, the whole human race. Now, politics has become personal for the singer, and he’s turned into a sort of emotional news anchor, reporting on the state of his world as it relates to President Bush’s War on Terror. Everything is involved—his parents, his girlfriend, the flowers in the driveway, the dead bodies in the cemetery, everything hums to the tune of his anxious ballad. Oberst has what Wordsworth would call ‘a heart that watches and receives’, and hearts like this can’t help but pick up the world’s static. He gives his feeling words, and fits the words to a tune—not one of his own, this time, but one that was written to give voice to a similar mood of turmoil and hope almost two centuries before Conor Oberst was born.
In 1785 Friedrich Schiller had just gotten over his last girlfriend, and spring was coming to his village near Leipzig. He was overcome with an incredible surge of happiness and goodwill for the human race, and sat down to write an ‘Ode to Joy’,
Joy, brilliant spark of the gods,
daughter of Elysium, heavenly being,
we enter, drunk with fire,
your holy sanctuary.
Your magic reunites
what was split by convention,
and all men become brothers
where your gentle wings are spread.
Be embraced, you millions!
This kiss for all the world!
Brothers, above the starry canopy
must surely dwell a loving father.
Schiller’s lines expressed the highest ideals of his century—the hope that the clearing away of dogma and outmoded institutions would, in time, heal the rifts in modern society and bring an end to war and misery. They also hinted at something new (or something very old, which seemed new); a wish to take leave of one’s senses—to dance, to sing, to lose oneself in a happy throng. Five years after he wrote it, young German poets were running through a meadow near the seminary at Tubingen shouting Schiller’s poem into the night air, and pausing between stanzas to take swigs from a bottle of wine.5
Schiller, like Wordsworth, was deeply sympathetic to the revolution; and like the English poet, he found his convictions impossible to maintain after the Reign of Terror. But if the Revolution shattered his faith in the ideals of the Enlightenment, it convinced him more than ever of the importance of art and poetry.
If man is ever to solve the problem of politics in practice he will have to approach it through the aesthetic, because it is only through beauty that man makes his way to freedom.
Even after world events had conspired to make Schiller’s optimism seem naïve, it was impossible to dismiss out of hand the vision he had presented in ‘Ode to Joy’. In fact, as the bright hopes of 1789 receded into the distance, the question of how to make people happy seemed more pressing than ever. Ludwig van Beethoven decided to tackle the problem himself in 1802, announcing his intention to set Schiller’s ‘Ode’ to music. It would be another twenty-two years before he would write to his publisher with good news on this front,
Vienna, March 10, 1824.
...These are all I can at present give you for publication. I must, alas!
now speak of myself, and say that this, the greatest work I have ever
written, is well worth 1000 florins C.M. It is a new grand symphony, with a
finale and voice parts introduced, solo and choruses, the words being those
of Schiller’s immortal ‘Ode to Joy’, in the style of my pianoforte Choral
Fantasia, only of much greater breadth.
At the asking price of 600 florins, the publisher had got himself a bargain. The Choral Symphony wedded Schiller’s verses to one of Beethoven’s most powerful pieces of music. The poem appears in the final movement, which begins with the ugliest blast of discordant noise that had been heard in a concert hall up to that time—which, for Beethoven, symbolised nothing less than all the misery in the world condensed into one gigantic, impossible chord. Then, as the smoke clears and the dust settles, a lone voice pipes up in the darkness, ‘Oh friends! No more of these tones! Let us sing something full of gladness!’.
A chorus appears out of nowhere and joins the singer as he belts out Schiller’s ‘Ode’ and the whole thing is carried by a magnificent, soaring melody—the same melody, in fact, that Conor Oberst rides in ‘Road to Joy’. Beethoven, conducting this final section at the piece’s premiere in 1824, got completely carried away—he was still furiously waving his arms in the air long after the orchestra had stopped playing. And Oberst seems to be swept up in the same feeling of wild abandon as his own song comes to its conclusion. ‘Let’s fuck it up boys!’, he tells his band, ‘make some noise!’.
But where Beethoven had his cacophony redeemed by a dream of universal brotherhood, Oberst ends his song with the end of the world. Oberst had always tried to write hope into his sadder songs. But you can hear his optimism fading in the last verses, as he looks around at the world and what we’ve made of it. The same suspicion with which he regards Western civilisation in ‘I Believe in Symmetry’ here reaches fever pitch. He sneers bitterly,
I hope I don’t sound too ungrateful,
What history gave modern men.
A telephone to talk to strangers,
a machine gun and a camera lens
None of these are any consolation for the still missing-in-action dream of universal human brotherhood. It’s over a century since Schiller wrote his poem, eight decades since Beethoven set it to music, and thirty years since that music was adopted as the official anthem of the European Community. But the dream it represents seems further away than ever.
The cracked howl and burst of noise at the end of ‘Road to Joy’ marked the start of a new phase in Bright Eyes’ music. For the next three years Oberst threw himself into protest music and political action. He played onstage with his hero, Bruce Springsteen on the Vote for Change tour, and recorded his most direct critique of the Bush administration, ‘When the President talks to God’. Then, at the beginning of 2008, he fell back—feeling, as he later described it, ‘corrupted and corroded’—and turned his gaze inward again.9 But the album he recorded—the first to be released since his very early days under his own name—was very different to Lifted or earlier efforts like Letting off the Happiness. Where Oberst used to look inside himself and see a world of trouble, here, on songs like ‘Sausalito’, he seemed to have found a measure of self-reliance, even peace.
The source of this new strength, it turned out, was nature. In ‘Sausalito’, the singer describes a camping trip with his girlfriend – they drive out into the desert so as to have the stars all to themselves. Here, Oberst’s experience of the landscape becomes almost religious – he has a sense of a spirit moving through creation, a ‘sound too soft to hear’. This mysterious ‘something’ accounts for the new feeling of calm in the songs on his self-titled album, which was recorded in a small cabin in rural Mexico. The music, as Oberst explained to triple j’s Zan Rowe, sprang from the landscape itself and the feelings it stirred in him. ‘I believe places have an energy to them’, he said. ‘I felt at peace, but also inspired’.
A Motion and a Spirit
In July 1798 Wordsworth and Dorothy travelled to Bristol to see Lyrical Ballads through the presses. They made their way up the Wye River and stopped at a place called Tintern, not far from the ruins of an old gothic abbey Wordsworth was overwhelmed by conflicting emotions. On his last visit to Tintern five years previously, his state of mind had been desperate, to say the least. He’d had his heart broken by a woman he had to leave, and by a cause he could no longer believe in. He’d found himself a traitor to his own country, an apologist for tyranny, and an apostate to a faith he’d only recently converted to. He was, in other words, a wreck. Back then, he’d raced around this landscape,
Wherever nature led: more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads than one
Who sought the thing he loved…
But since then, much had changed in Wordsworth’s life. In 1798 he could look back at the Wordsworth of five years previously with not a little admiration for his hot-headed romantic passion. But he knew he wouldn’t trade that for what he’d found since,
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things
Here, in Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth is describing the almost mystical faith in nature that would sustain him for the rest of his life. This feeling runs through even the plainest of the Lyrical Ballads, and it’s the key to his admonishment to poets in ‘The Tables Turned’ to put down the books and go for a walk. Wordsworth’s faith, and his ability to write poetry, had been restored by his year in the country. It seemed to him as though the source of life and the source of his creative power were one and the same. But this realisation had not come easily to him—to reach it he had, in a sense, found it necessary to jettison almost four hundred years worth of European history; four centuries in which man’s ability to reason was prized above all else, and the kind of simple faith Wordsworth was longing for was thought to be a relic of a (thankfully) long-gone era. Wordsworth’s new philosophy turned this attitude on its head.
For the second edition of The Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth wrote a preface explaining his new ideas as they related to poetry. He warned his readers that they were about to enter a poetic universe in which the laws laid down by Pope and the coffee-house classicists did not apply. He had powerful feelings to communicate, feelings which had come to him in the presence of nature; feelings which could not be made to abide by a set of rules any more than nature itself could be made to fit the harsh geometry of an eighteenth-century garden.
“All good Poetry”, Wordsworth insisted in his now-famous preface, “is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. But Wordsworth was careful to add a disclaimer to this, saying that poets should make sure they don’t get too carried away with their emotions,
The end of Poetry is to produce excitement in coexistence with an
overbalance of pleasure… But if the words by which this excitement is
produced are in themselves powerful, or the images and feelings have an undueproportion of pain connected with them, there is some danger that the excitement may be carried beyond its proper bounds.
Here, Wordsworth is insisting on the one hand that poetry must come from feeling, while warning on the other that the poet must temper this feeling with a mood of calm repose such as the one in which he wrote Tintern Abbey. Over the coming century, generations of younger poets happily embraced the first part of his formula while completely disregarding the second. This, in a sense, was entirely fair. Wordsworth had revealed that the rules of poetry were a sham, and that the only authority the poet ought to respect was the poet’s own feeling for truth. It was a bit late now to start talking about ‘proper bounds’.
When Conor Oberst said, back in 2002, that people who thought his songs were too long could just fade them down, it’s almost as if he was saying ‘I don’t care if you listen – these are my feelings’. This is the kind of thing Wordsworth warned about in his preface – the poet’s ‘excitement carried beyond its proper bounds’ perfectly describes Bright Eyes’ early music. The singer has rejected formalism, and replaced it with nothing. As a result, Oberst sings too long, confesses too much, cries too easily and screams too loud.
These days Oberst’s position is closer to the Wordsworth of Tintern Abbey; his music still comes from feeling, but that feeling is tempered by a sense of spiritual calm. He’s even made some concessions to form – although the forms he uses are much more likely to come from the street-level tradition of popular balladry than from any encyclopedia of pop. And yet it’s no less personal – everything comes from feeling and the artist’s inner life, and he shares it with us because it moved him – no other reason is required. When he starts screaming and hollering in ‘I don’t wanna die in the hospital’ or over-sharing about his sex life in ‘Sausalito’, the old Conor Oberst is not too far away. Is it a bit much for you? he seems to be asking. Go on, fade it down – see if I care.
He can afford to say this because he knows we won’t – not all of us anyway. For every hundred souls who fade him down and fade up the new Maroon 5 album, there’s at least one or two who stay the distance, and those special few are hooked for life. Music writer Brian Howe has said that being a Bright Eyes’ fan is about having ‘a sense of being a part of a special moment governed more by intuition than intellect’. Conor Oberst’s music is about feelings, not rules; and to love him is to choose the sound of gut-wrenching sadness over polished perfection, to prefer soul-baring excess to cool refinement.
To like these things in 2005 made you emo; in 1798 it made you romantic. Romanticism is often seen as a reaction to the enlightenment – a rejection of the philosophical and literary ideals of the eighteenth century. Its earliest stirrings can be found in the very midst of the enlightenment itself. Rousseau was, in many ways, a typical enlightenment philosopher, since he sought to improve life by discrediting assumptions. But because he preferred nature to society and strong passion to rational thought, he was also the first of the romantics.
After Rousseau came the Germans, who took things an important step further. Rousseau, as Isiah Berlin has shown in Against the Current, may have rejected the culture of science, but he never abandoned the idea that the world made sense.2 The Germans of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century – Haman, Goethe, Schiller, Heine, Hegel, Fichte and Schopenhauer – would not be so squeamish. These writers would replace the enlightenment’s clockwork universe with a world of flux and chaos, and this change was mirrored in the art and literature they produced and championed – classicism was replaced by folklore, refined elegance by untamed nature, good sense by intense emotion.
Meanwhile, in England, the achievements of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey were followed in the early nineteenth century by stronger stuff from Byron, Shelley and Keats. These poets looked to Wordsworth sometimes as an elder statesman, sometimes as an embarrassing old uncle. They were generally less cautious in their methods and more extreme in temperament than Wordsworth – and they augmented his idea of poetry as a description of the poet’s inner life with an interest in darkness, despair, madness and other altered states. This was the legacy of another counter-enlightenment tendency – the Gothic revival, which had been gaining momentum for almost half a century before The Lyrical Ballads was published.
By the time Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage became a surprise smash hit in 1812, romanticism was a craze, and by 1830 any adherents to the school of Pope would be feeling - as literary historian Robert Barnard puts it - “very lonely indeed”.3 Romanticism would, in various forms, dominate the artistic and philosophical world of the 19th century. By 1900 it had given the world Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’, Beethoven’s Choral Symphony, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Keats’ ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, Goethe’s Faust, Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Nietzsche’sAlso Sprach Zarathustra, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Pucchini’s La Boheme and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey.
If we could somehow get the authors of all these great works together in a room, we’d have a tough time getting them to agree on anything – and no hope at all of discovering a single artistic principle they all share in common. Romanticism is hard to define, partly for the same reason emo is; it’s entirely predicated on the idea that the artist is a unique and special individual, and there’s nothing unique and special individuals hate more than the implication that they are somehow one of a ‘type’. But even if the artists’ objections are ignored, the historian will have a tough time coming up with a definition of ‘romantic’ that holds true in every case. Romanticism seems to dissolve as it’s subjected to scrutiny – a metaphor the romantics, with their suspicion of reason and science, would appreciate.
Sweet is the lore which nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things;
—We murder to dissect.
In fact if one thing could be said to connect the movement’s most famous voices—to provide a link between the careers of such singular and unclassifiable personalities as Shelley, Beethoven, Nietzsche, Puccini, Hugo, Friedrich and Keats—it’s the idea Wordsworth speaks of here in ‘The Tables Turned’.
Enough of science and of art;
Close up these barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.
Nature is greater than science, emotion more important than reason. The romantic artist favours passion over good sense. He prefers the sound of lusty old ballads to well-observed satires, and he certainly prefers the sight of mountains to neatly trimmed hedges. Wordsworth was by no means the first to express this preference, but in art, timing is everything, and Wordsworth’s timing was impeccable. Lyrical Ballads appeared in the midst of one of the greatest upheavals in European history, a period of time in which almost every aspect of life—politics, religion, philosophy and the arts—was fundamentally altered. The crisis of faith Wordsworth had been through in his twenties, when his head led him badly astray and his heart put him back on track, seemed to play out, in microcosm, the crisis of a whole generation.
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